chawan shomen

The face of a tea bowl

Tea bowls get turned a lot – a turn to the left . . . a turn to the right – what’s going on?

Tea bowls have a ‘face’, called ‘shomen’ in tea parlance and written ‘ 正面 ‘ in Japanese. 正 = true and 面 = face. The shomen is the most beautiful angle from which to view the tea bowl.

The person performing a tea ceremony decides the shomen while they prepare for the ceremony. Sometimes the face is obvious, with a picture or engraving by the maker. This tea bowl’s even more obvious – there’s a face for the face!

chawan shomen

The shomen faces the host as they prepare tea. When the host presents the tea to their guest, the host turns the tea bowl so the shomen faces the guest. Of course, you want them to view the most beautiful part of the tea bowl. Then the guest turns the bowl before drinking so they don’t drink from the most beautiful face of the tea bowl. This is both an act of humility and a sign of respect to the host.

The picture on the tea bowl above is of Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso. On the reverse side of this tea bowl are Caetano Veloso’s lyrics:

Saudade até que é bom, melhor que caminhar vazio


Better full with melancholy and longing than to be walking empty

chawan saudade

Maybe it was because of a strong emotional connection to these poetics that Erika got the shomen confused. Please watch this from the streets of Lisbon:

The shomen is the most beautiful face of a tea bowl. But behind that facade and underlying the poetics of a tea gathering, is the emotion in your tea. This is where your true face is revealed.